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Analyzing the Problem of Plastic from a Socio-Legal Perspective


Plastic Pollution
Image Courtesy – Daniela Ramírez

Plastic pollution free world is not a choice but a commitment to life – a commitment to the next generation.

Amit Ray

As Lady Bird Johnson rightly said, ‘The environment is where we all meet, where we all have a mutual interest, it is the one thing we share in common ‘. Ever since the start of time, humans have relied on nature and its resources to fulfill all needs. From clothing to food to shelter. Our reliance on nature is increasing day by day as our population and our wants keep on piling up.

We have not been kind towards mother nature as we have always kept our interest forward. We tend to forget that our ecosystems are not just for us humans but also for the uncountable species of flora and fauna. Our abuse of the environment has led to an imbalance in biological diversity and has impacted the overall well-being of nature. Yes, we have been a constant strain on the environment. It all started from the excessive cutting down of trees and our sewage being dumped in the sea. Over time our environmental concerns have multiplied, intensified, and have become much more complex. 

If we take a look at India, the country’s GDP is expected to grow at 8.3% for the financial year 2022-23. It is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Significant developments have been done in the sectors of manufacturing, exports, healthcare, and ammunition. While progress is beneficial for the socio-economic growth of society, it is hugely detrimental to the environment. Modern India faces countless challenges when it comes to pollution. Air and water pollution are the gravest of many issues. 80% of all surface water has been contaminated. The use of pesticides has also led to the contamination of soil and underground streams. The air quality index is amongst the worst in the world for cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. While there are numerous causes for the current situation, there is one that stands out the most – Plastic. 

Discovered in the year 1907 by Belgian inventor Leo Baekeland, plastic is one of the most versatile inventions ever.  It is cheap and very adaptable. From automobiles to space tech, it is being used everywhere. After it has served its purpose we do what we do with everything, we get rid of it. Once it is in our dustbin and out of our house, it is not our problem anymore. While garbage such as vegetable peels are biodegradable and get dissolved in the environment, plastic stays for years and years to come.

A plastic bag thrown by your grandmother could still be buried deep down in a landfill or it may be floating in a river. While plastic is not the sole contributor to pollution of all kinds, it surely is the biggest one. The accumulation of plastic debris and its detrimental impact on ecosystems is known as plastic pollution. The harm done cannot be justified in words with India perhaps being the worst victim of plastic pollution.

The Impact of Plastic Pollution

India alone generates more than 30 lakh tonnes of plastic waste. This figure is of the current year and is expected to grow by 20% for the next year. In the year 2015, this figure was at 15 lakh tonnes. Our reliance on plastic has increased but our capacity to get rid of it has stayed the same or even reduced. Recycling is not a common practice in India and all the waste is dumped in the ocean or in landfills. Plastic waste comes from all spheres including manufacturing and health care. Right from the start, plastic is detrimental to our surroundings. The chemicals used in the manufacturing of plastic are derived from non-renewable sources such as coal and petrol. It releases toxins that stay in the environment for years and years to come. It is also considered to be a primary contributor to the greenhouse effect. 

Polyethylene is the most commonly used and produced form of plastic. Once it is disposed of, it releases a lot of methane which is considered more toxic than carbon dioxide. The release of chemicals and the greenhouse effect leads to an increase in the number of dengue and malaria cases and causes various respiratory diseases. The global temperature keeps rising and a lot of the blame has to be put on plastic. If disposed of without any treatment, the toxins are absorbed by the soil and the underwater supply is also contaminated. The species of plants and animals that rely on this water also suffer from the toxins they consume.

When dumped in the water, the nano-plastic molecules affect the behavior of fishes as it seeps through the brain-blood barrier. Plankton and aquatic plants cannot survive in the presence of plastic. Humans are not immune to the harmful effects of plastic. If exposed to the chemicals omitted from plastic there is a high risk of cancer, congenital defects, and even reproductive problems.

India’s Ban on Single-Use Plastic

In the events that have come to light recently, India put a ban on single-use plastics in the year 2022. A central government committee came to a conclusion considering all factors such as the utility of the product and proportionate environmental impact. It was announced in the year 2021 that single-use plastics will be banned from the 1st of July 2022. Disposable items such as plastic bags and straws are examples of the items to be banned.

As the demand for plastic is high and the production costs are low, it is being produced in bulk. About 40% of the plastic waste is not collected and stays unattended, often in public places. Pickers are paid meager amounts to collect recyclable plastic waste such as water bottles. Items such as grocery bags cannot be recycled as their quality is very cheap and they are not meant for more than a couple of uses.

 Most of the plastic in India is not recycled but it is downcycled. It means that the quality and lifespan of the recycled product are greatly reduced. The move is not genius but it is much needed. A lot of restaurants have started replacing plastic with biodegradable cutlery. The government has to incentivize recycling and also look after the production of affordable alternatives. They also have to make sure to implement the upcoming laws as a similar ban in the year 2018 completely failed. 

Legislations pertaining to the Environment

Plastic Pollution
Image Courtesy – Polina Tysiachenko

The Environment Protection Act – Agreed upon in the year 1972 at the Stockholm conference, the environment acts solely aimed at the improvement of our ecosystems. Some of the important sections of the Act are as follows –

  • Section 6 – It enables the Central Government to introduce new laws and to make changes to the existing ones by notifying the gazette.
  • Section 8 – Deals hazardous substances and lays down safeguarding procedures.

The Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011It contains a list of specific rules that have to be followed by corporations and individuals especially those in the manufacture and distribution of plastic. Some of the detailed conditions are as follows – 

  • No carry bag should be pigmented with colors that are not in conformity with the already set Indian standards.
  • Recycled Plastic is not to be reused in the form of plastic bags. The manufacture and distribution of plastic bags with less than 40mm thickness are prohibited. 
  • Plastics are not to be used in the form of sachets that are being used to store Gutka or any other tobacco products.

Some of the mentioned waste management guidelines are as follows – 

  • All guidelines and rules laid down by the government have to be followed when it comes to recycling old plastic.
  • Waste management systems have to be set up at a grassroots level. This job has to be done at a local level and is thus best if done by local civic or municipal bodies. From the setting up to the day-to-day operations, everything has to be done by Municipal bodies in accordance with the state or central standards. The most important tasks to be undertaken are storage, separation, transportation, initial processing, and safe disposal of all plastic waste. The most important point to be kept in mind is that no harm should be caused to the environment. 
  • Collection and storage facilities have to be developed and the waste has to be directly channelized towards the recyclers. All those who are a part of the process, be it a sweeper, have to be made aware of their duties and responsibilities. Guidelines regarding outsourcing of work are also mentioned. 

The Act was amended in the year 2018 and the rules laid down were applied to rural bodies such as Gram Panchayats. The rules are also applicable and are to be followed by every single manufacturer, importer, and exporter of goods. The term ‘producer’s liability’ is used multiple times to make them aware of the obligations they owe to society. At the heart of it all, the aim is to create an efficient system of dealing with the product till it meets its end.

Conclusion

The sociology of media undoubtedly has a role to play, and it seems obvious that there is a separate place for social scientists and sociologists to engage in plastic pollution. Plastic pollution may not (yet) be on the public health agenda, but it obviously poses a serious threat to public health. Human actions also contribute to plastic pollution, so if we want to see change, we must engage the public as well as policymakers. To do this, sociologists are in a good position. However, given that there were several readily available alternatives on the market, perhaps this move was simple.

Other recent problems like plastic microfibers from synthetic garments or tire abrasions in cars are probably going to be far more troublesome. The key takeaway is that without a thorough understanding of behavior at the individual, group, and societal levels, we are unlikely to find a solution. Sociologists can investigate the interactions between cultural ideals of “good citizenship” and “responsible parenting” and other ideals that contradict ecologically friendly behavior. This is especially true when it comes to threats to human health where there is scientific ambiguity. Currently, images of dead whales or seabirds caught in plastic can evoke strong emotional reactions in people, but they can also be quickly dismissed as the latest fad. However, the issue of plastic pollution poses important questions about sustainability and how we live, necessitating a persistent systemic and interdisciplinary approach.



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